The Duck of Minerva

Memo to Ross Douthat

13 August 2008

Douthat comments on Max Boot’s call for the US to, if necessary, turn Georgia into the next Afghanistan (circa 1984).

Now these arguments have a certain surface plausibility, but I would find them much more convincing if Boot were not simultaneously arguing that Russia’s ambitions (and capabilities) run as follows: “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?” It’s hard for me to believe that Putin’s Russia is both an aggressive, expansive power poised to rebuild the Soviet Empire at tank-point and that the Russians would be more or less helpless to retaliate against us in their own neighborhood if we decided to start a proxy war with them in the Caucuses.

Jack Snyder described this very phenomenon in Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and Imperial Ambition

The “myth of the paper tiger,” as Snyder explains in his National Interest article “Imperial Temptations,” holds that enemies are:

capable of becoming fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory. For example, Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge, self-sufficient empire to get the resources to defend itself; yet at the same time, the Japanese regime saw the United States as so vulnerable and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would discourage it from fighting back.

Snyder goes on to discuss the “Bush Administration’s argument for preventive war against Iraq” as an example of this line of reasoning, but it clearly remains a mainstay in foreign-policy arguments of all types.